Monday, September 24, 2018

Just Updates

Turns out that I am not able to run two games concurrently, so the MegaTraveller game went on a long-term hiatus almost immediately.

Scheduling issues have kept us from meeting much in the last month or so.

I'm probably not going to write up the fourth session of the GURPS Deindustrial Future game in detail. It was a lot of investigation, then the players tried to visit the ranch boss who seems to be the cause of the troubles they've been dealing with. On the way, one of the ranch hands fired a musket at the group as they rode up the road to the ranch, hitting Clementine and severely injuring her. The ranch hand ran off to a fate unknown to the players. When they confronted the ranch boss, it quickly became apparent that the town marshall had visited earlier and been killed, as her spirit was still hanging around and attempted (badly) to communicate with Caleb, one of whose talents is the ability to act as a spirit medium. The marshall's spirit has followed the PCs back to town and is quickly learning how to be an effective ghost.

The nominal fifth session was a mostly administrative one. I discussed how the adventure is going with the players and learned that the reason Caleb's player hasn't really been using magic much is that he didn't know some of the aspects of the Path/Book system, so I helped him out and now all of the PCs are loaded up with amulets and blessings. Both of the injured characters have been given Succor and have healed up in a matter of a few days.

It's been my observation that the Path/Book Adept advantage is priced far too cheaply. After some quick calculations, I think that it should be set at either 15 or 20 points per level. I won't make that change in the current campaign, though I will likely adopt it in the future when using that magic system.

As the current adventure nears an ending, I have been thinking about what to do next—whether to continue the current setting or start up a new one. I'm pretty interested in starting up a new setting for a different sort of adventure with the option to return to the Deindustrial Future one. Something with more melee weapons and fewer guns maybe. The players seem to be interested in continuing with GURPS, which I can live with. Maybe I'll shift back into high gear on the GURPS Greyhawk concept. Or maybe I can do a GURPS Voodoo/Illuminati/Cabal mashup with plenty of wuxia martial arts and spirit warriors.

Alternately, one of the players was in the game when I ran RuneQuest 3rd edition (that's the one from Avalon Hill) a number of years back. He has generated some interest among the other players by talking it up pretty glowingly and I have been playing around with an idea for a setting that uses systems developed for that game.

Or, as you may recall, there's that long list of other ideas I've had, and I have an even longer list sitting in my files right now.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Adventure Design Consideration

Still haven't written up the Deindustrial Future episode 4 report, and we played a game of MegaTraveller set in a small-ship LBB77-style universe of my own dicing. I should write that one up, too.

I've been reading a few reviews of adventures lately that pick on one thing: adventure space "wasted" on things that the Referee can make up themself. On the one hand, I can see this. It wastes space that could be used for something of more value, or else could be edited out to save on the size of the product. That's fine and all. The thing is, though, that I want those things. I can for sure make up the contents of a kitchen or pantry, but sometimes in the heat of running a game I don't want to make them up. I want something I can look at and just lazily pick. That's why I'm paying for an adventure instead of writing it myself. If I have a better idea than what is written, then I can supersede* their material with my own.

For example, I'm reading a review of Spires of Altdorf for Warhammer FRP 2nd edition. It talks about how some info on what might happen if you fight, sneak, or interact with the locals in a location, but complains that some of this info is given for mundane places like streets or generic tenements. Honestly, I have other things to think about when I'm running a game, and really appreciate having some suggestions in the location material. One of the things that I loved about City-State of the Invincible Overlord was the suggested encounter for every street. Those things really help provide a sense of what the city is like to live in and move through.

And yes, a generic "dungeon dressing" table like the ones in the DMG is really helpful, but I think that such tables are even better if they're tuned to the specific setting. So, I guess that I'm just disagreeing with one of the frequent points of Joseph "Against the Wicked City" Manola and Bryce "tenfootpole" Lynch. Adventure writers, please keep providing mundane set dressing for us lazy Referees.


*Fine, I give up. It's a dumb spelling, but I'll submit to it. For now.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Hierophant

We've played a fourth session of the Deindustrial Future game, but I haven't written it up yet. Here's something to tide you over.

Illustration: Walt McDougall, The Salt Lake Herald, February 22, 1903

Seems like an interesting critter. Anyone want to stat it up for one game or another? Feel free to post it here or to your own blog. If you post it to your blog, give me a link here if you wouldn't mind.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Deindustrial Future, Session 3

Our Story So Far

After the eventful night, our heroes decided to set off back to town in the morning in order to do some research on the copper fragment, the German manuscript, and Joe's property. Since he had things to do in town, Joe offered to give them a ride, which the characters gratefully accepted since Caleb is not a strong walker and Billy was still suffering from the stabbing he received in the saloon fight. The ride into town was uneventful.

Deciding to split up, Caleb decided to look into the manuscript at the library while Billy and Clem went to the local blacksmith to see if he might have any ideas on the copper fragment. The librarian, Charles, offered a letter of introduction to a woman named Ursula who he thought might be able to read the manuscript, as she came from Germany when she was a young woman. This turned out to be the case, and she discussed the nature of the manuscript with Caleb: it is a book involved with summoning particular spirits.

Meanwhile, Billy spoke with the blacksmith. It turned out, conveniently, that his hobbies included chemistry and metallurgy, so he was able to give an analysis of the metal fragment and indicated that it was nearly pure copper. Unable to find out much more, Billy and Clementine decided to check in with Joe, to make sure that he was OK.

As they approached the general store where Joe had said he was going to be for much of the day, they realized that there were three men, one at each end of the block and one leaning against a post across the street from the general store. As Clementine approached the doors of their destination, a fourth man stepped in front of her and barred her entry. Clementine tried to ask why he was in her way, but the man only told her to get out of town and that she wasn't welcome. Around this time, Billy noticed that the man at the far end of the block had disappeared, and the other two were walking toward the pair.

Clem, realizing that she wasn't going to get much further, attempted to shove the swinging door into Gordo, the man blocking her, and knocked him a bit back into the general store. He pulled out his gun and took a shot at her, but missed. Billy turned to face the two other men. Suddenly, a shot rang out from a building in the next block and one of the men fell down, shot in the back by a mysterious benefactor. Billy swung his staff at the other man, knocking the pistol out of his hand and pretty seriously injuring his arm.

Deciding that Gordo had upped the stakes, Clem drew her own pistol and planted three bullets in his chest, running inside to make sure he stayed down. When she went in, she managed to avoid being hit by another gunman inside, Alfie. After making sure that his opponent was running away, Billy decided to follow Clementine inside. As he did, he noticed a mystery man, hopefully their mysterious benefactor who stopped one of the attackers, approaching from a hotel in the next block.

Once inside, Billy chased down Alfie, but decided to charge him directly. Alfie put a couple of rounds into Billy's chest, knocking him out. Meanwhile, Clem and the mysterious stranger flanked Alfie and took him with only one more shot fired. Tying up the two prisoners, Gordo and Alfie, they took care of Billy and found Joe and the general store's owner hiding behind some shelves. They were discussing what to do and how to send for the town's Marshal, Marnie, when I started getting exhausted from the heat and decided that I needed to end the session. The mysterious stranger vanished in the confusion. Billy was taken to the town's doctor and given some healing elixir. Experience points were portioned out.

On the whole, I was happy with this session, though I am not sure how the players felt about it - they seemed happy enough. I was happy that we got to see how missile combat works in GURPS, and I offered an important tactical tip to Billy's player: don't get in front of a gun. Billy was fine and behind cover, and even had a good path to flank Alfie, but his player decided to run six yards straight into Alfie's gun's sights - a full move with no attack allowed that turn. That led to his character going into negative HP, in part because he was still injured from the knife wound of a couple of days (game time) ago. I suspect that this was left over from the player's extensive history of playing Hero System, which is perhaps a bit more forgiving of such heroic, direct charges.

I've talked the players into letting me run a Top Secret game as well, so that's what we'll be playing next.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

An Observation And A List

I don't have much to say right now. The holiday meant skipping a week for the game I'm running. Still, I have thinky thoughts.

First, I haven't seen anyone say this as bluntly as I think it needs to be said. Games that don't have skills, and even some that do, should be run with one major principle in place: characters succeed. If it's in question, roll a d6 (or maybe a Saving Throw in Swords & Wizardry and related games). If it involves people's reactions, make a reaction check.

When a character in D&D in any of its varieties before 1.5E tries to do something, it should generally just work unless it's ridiculous. This is even more true in versions that don't have a variation of the Thief class. No Thieves and you want to pick a lock? Did you buy lockpicks? Then you do it. Maybe a roll of 5-6 on 1d6 will cause the lockpicks to break after opening the door. Want to bust down a door? You do it (with a wandering monster check). If the DM says that the door is particularly tough, roll 1d6 with a modifier for your Strength, and a 5 or higher busts it down. If it's particularly complicated (hunting through a library for a particular manuscript, for example), maybe refer to the character's background and make a ruling based on that. In fact, setting a general background (Conan the Librarian!) might be the one thing you could add to character creation, where AD&D 1E has Secondary Skills for much the same purpose. Something technical like forging a sword would require an appropriate background, for example.

The same principle applies to other games. You're playing Traveller and you want to rappel down a wall? Do you have some rope? Then you do it. You want to convince someone to help you? Roll a reaction check (if you have some appropriate skill, maybe that will help modify the roll).

The general idea is that characters are generally competent to carry out the plans that their players make, for the most part.

Anyway, for the second point, here's a list of games that I have come to think have really stood the test of time, as it were. Games that I still like on the whole. A lot of these games work a lot better if you apply the above idea:

Amber Diceless Roleplaying
The Arcanum
Call of Cthulhu (up through 5.5E or so)
Chivalry & Sorcery (1E and 2E, though there have been some recent unofficial versions based on those that are great too)
CORPS (2E)
Cyberpunk (2013 and 2020)
D&D/AD&D (up through 2.0E/Rules Cyclopedia; after that, it gets weird; retroclones and similar variants elsewhere)
Empire of the Petal Throne
GURPS (3E revised and 4E)
In Nomine
James Bond 007
Kult
Lace & Steel (I think, I only played it once, still it looks good)
Lords of Creation
Pendragon (I prefer 4E, unlike other people apparently, but the other editions are great too)
Rolemaster/Spacemaster (I guess they're calling the good edition "Classic" now)
RuneQuest (never met a version I didn't like, yet)
Space 1889 (the GDW version, and I actually like the system; it's pretty much the only time I don't mind dice pools)
Star Trek RPG (FASA; I can't say that it's great, but it does the job well)
Star Wars (West End Games)
Star Wars (WotC, though it isn't as good as the WEG one; the only use I have for D20 system)
Stormbringer (4E is the best, after that they messed it up)
Swordbearer
Top Secret (original, the 1981 second edition, and the Companion)
Traveller (classic LBB77/LBB81/TTB/ST and MegaTraveller)
2300AD (I actually like the system)
Unknown Armies (I can't run it, apparently, but the ideas are great; maybe I'd be better at running it today)
Villains & Vigilantes (I haven't played Mighty Protectors yet, so I can't speak to that edition)

Games that I haven't played, but look good:

Adventurer Conqueror King System/ACKS
Big Eyes, Small Mouth (specifically Sailor Moon, Ghost Dog, and Revolutionary Girl Utena)
Celtic Legends
Guardians
Hârnmaster
Lamentations of the Flame Princess
Silent Legions
Stars Without Number (I'm pretty excited by the Revised Edition)
Starships & Spacemen (2E looks better than 1E)
Swords & Wizardry (White Box mainly, but the others are OK)
White Star (S&W: White Box in a galaxy far away that isn't Star Wars we promise)

Games that would be good but need development:

Fantasy Wargaming
Realms of the Unknown

You'll notice a distinct lack of White Wolf games and Shadowrun. That's because dice pools are dumb, in general. No Hero System because it's just too scattered for me these days. Also no Savage Worlds, which I might be being unfair about - I suppose that I have to play it more. And no goddamned FATE.

I might have missed some. If I didn't include your favorite system, ask me why I didn't. It might be an oversight.

NOTE: As time has gone on and I remember more games to include, I have been adjusting these lists slightly.

Friday, June 22, 2018

Deindustrial Future: Sessions 1 and 2

The group of players, as I noted before, chose to play in my Deindustrial Future game. To save you from having to follow the link, I described it there as follows:

GURPS Deindustrial Future - I presented this as a cross between Stephen King's Dark Tower series and Fallout without the nukes. The setting is the future a few hundred years after our civilization runs out of petroleum to fuel it. While electricity, and technology, does exist, the large-scale networks of power transmission and transportation infrastructure do not. Characters have access to items up to TL7 (most TL8 items require far too much interdependent, and so unavailable, infrastructure), but cost 2x as much as normal for every TL above 4 (roughly the 16th-18th centuries), which is the maximum easily sustainable technology level. The culture is heavily influenced by the American West, simply because that's easier to get everybody on the same page, but the world is split into, effectively, city-states and tribal chieftains - not unlike Europe's Migration Era after the fall of Rome. There's also some magic of a relatively subtle kind ("Path/Book Magic" for those of you who know GURPS) along with spirits, and alchemy of the standard GURPS sort ("snake oil") along with some other things like Gunslingers and traveling preachers of a sort.
I've refined this in play to note that there's still a sort of rump USA, based around where New York City exists today (well, a little inland of that due to rising ocean levels), but it bears a similarity to the USA we know in the same way that Byzantium in the 11th century bore a resemblance to the Roman Empire .  Either way, the players have started the game in the Illinois Kingdom, one of the more organized states of deindustrialized North America.

The three current player-characters are:

Caleb: a wandering Druid, notable for his extremely short stature.
Clementine: a Gunslinger.
Billy: a member of the Guild of Salvagers, a group of people who are somewhere between recyclers and archaeologists. Also a student of the martial arts. Caleb and Clem are friends of his, and often travel with him.

Because this game is a more cinematic take on the subject than other approaches I might have made, players started with 200 points. None of the players has played fourth edition GURPS previously (which did play a role in the selection of the game, as they like to broaden their experience), and I have never run or played fourth edition, though I have been reading it for several years. As a result, some of our rules-heavy play, such as combat, goes slowly and with a lot of page-flipping to make sure that things are remembered (this phase of learning to play a game is one of the many reasons that I do not like PDFs, which are even more cumbersome in practice than paper books if there's more than one to consult). I have taken the How to be a GURPS GM book's advice and limited the rules that we're using, though I have also chosen to jump right into GURPS Technical Grappling from the start. We've had some bobbles (notably that I misapplied some Technical Grappling elements), but we're getting into the groove.

We're meeting every other week in theory, usually every two to three weeks in practice.

As the game opened, the characters were on a journey to a meeting of the Salvagers' Guild at a small town on the edge of the Illinois Kingdom. Travel-weary, they had stopped in a saloon around a day's travel from their final destination to relax and prepare for the final leg of their travels. The saloon filled up with a few people when a group of six rowdies (we'll call them the McSomething Boys, due to their fairly generically thuggish nature) came in, taking up a table and generally making a noisy ruckus. Shortly, one of them started harassing a lone farmer named Joe, which quickly led to the others backing him up. The characters decided to intervene and a bar fight broke out.

Caleb threw a beer mug at the instigating McSomething Boy as he was jacking the famer, Joe, against the wall, causing him to lose his grip on the farmer and turn around to face the new threat. Billy grabbed one of the boys in an arm lock and found himself threatened by one of the others who had pulled out a knife. Clem decided not to use her pistols in order to not escalate the situation further, as two of the Boys came for her. Meanwhile, farmer Joe and the other saloon patrons scrambled for the exits as well as they could, while the bartender and server rushed to protect whatever bottle and glassware weren't out on the tables.

The players did win the fight, though the knife-wielding McSomething Boy stabbed Billy for a big chunk of damage. The whole fight took around 20 turns or so, or maybe a bit less (one of the players estimated it at 12 turns - I lost track and didn't record it well enough to know for sure). It might have taken a bit longer if I were using the "Last Gasp" rules on combat action, which I do hope to get to at some point. The town Marshal, Marnie, arrived to take custody of the three Boys who hadn't already made a run for it. The players learned, both from her and from questioning the Boys they'd captured, that the Boys were employees of Richard, a local ranch magnate who had been trying to take over Joe's land.

(Because we are new to using the combat system, that took up the first session of play. From here, we move on to the second session.)

Deciding to leave Billy to recover from his knife wound, Clem and Caleb asked Marnie, the town Marshal, where Joe's farm was located. She let them know, but asked if they could stay in town until next week when Judge Pike would be back, so that they could testify. They agreed, then headed out to Joe's farm to learn what they could. Due to Caleb's short legs, the journey to the farm was about two hours of walking. Meeting Joe's wife as she was hanging out laundry, she directed them to the back field where Joe and his son, Dick, were watering the crops, it being midsummer.

Interviewing Joe, they learned little more than they already knew, but Clementine's sharp gunslinger vision allowed her to notice a figure crawling from a pile of boulders at the top of a hill in the northern part of Joe's land. After asking Joe for permission, they started to approach cautiously, but when it seemed as though the mystery person looked directly at them, she took off at a run to try to catch them, with Caleb following as best he could. Unfortunately, by the time Clem arrived at the hillcrest, all that remained were some tracks heading off into a wooded area. When Caleb caught up, they considered following the tracks, but decided to check the boulder pile first. They found a hidden tunnel that led underground into a room which had two tunnels leading off from it. Clem climbed down to investigate while Caleb waited on the surface. The first tunnel led to a small room with a table on which were a bowl filled with a dark liquid and two candles, one on either side of the bowl, plus a small item made of a rooster foot with some feather tied to it. In the flickering candlelight, she didn't notice that there were also chalk markings on the table, though they would discover those shortly when Caleb would be brought down with a full torch to examine them.

Down the other tunnel, Clem found a small wooden elevator powered by a pulley system. That's when she called for Caleb to come help, first showing him the table, which he surmised was involved with spirits in some way, though he didn't recognize the specific set of symbols used. He also noted that the dark liquid in the bowl was wine.

With Clementine operating the pulley system, Caleb descended into the darkness and found that the elevator went down to a small room with three narrow tunnels leading off from it, generally in the direction of the stream that runs along the edge of Joe's property. Exploring all three, Caleb determined that one led nowhere, but the other two seemed to intersect a large vein of apparently pure copper. Most surprisingly, despite the moist conditions due to the proximity of the stream, the copper had no verdigris. Caleb used some tools lying in the tunnel to cut out a chunk to show Joe. After discussing the matter with Joe, the players decided to spend the night since it was getting late, in part so that they could protect the farmer if anything further were to happen.

In the morning, they set out back to the town, but Caleb, deciding to make the journey despite his injury, met them halfway. After being told about the copper vein, they all headed back to Joe's farm so that Billy could ask permission to take a piece to examine in town. During the ensuing discussion, the players learned that Joe had recently taken ownership of the farm from his uncle's will, and that there were a number of boxes of Joe's uncle's papers in the attic. Deciding that examining these might prove useful, the player grabbed a few of the many boxes of papers and started going through them. Caleb found a stash of apparently occult manuscripts written in German, but the rest of the papers they were able to examine before it got dark were of less interest. As the sun was starting to set, Clem noticed the glow of a fire in the fields!

As the farming family scrambled to prepare buckets and the water-cart, Caleb called on the weather to bring rain to help extinguish the fire before it could spread to do much damage. Between the rain, the fact that it still wasn't quite harvest time, and the water-cart, the fire ended up burning less than an acre of the wheat crop. The players surmised that the inopportune conditions for burning the fields might indicate that whoever was behind it may have been rushed to action, perhaps by their presence. At this point, we decided to break off the session. We'll next meet the week after the Fourth of July.

Overall, the players seem to be happy with the story and I'm certainly having fun slowly doling out clues about what is happening. I'm still not happy with my incomplete mastery of the rules, but I am also letting myself make mistakes so that I can learn from them.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Some More Campaigns

In the last post, I mentioned six campaigns that I offered to my players that I wanted to run, and let them choose from among them. I mentioned elsewhere that I have a lot more where that came from, and I had whittled my various games down to just that half-dozen. Here are some more where those came from:

First, I have always wanted to run a game using Ken Hite's "Seas of Dread, Sails of Daring" setting that he outlined in the old GURPS 3E supplement, GURPS Horror, Third Edition, then revised (as just "Seas of Dread") for GURPS 4E in GURPS Horror, Fourth Edition. It might even supersede wanting to run Flashing Blades as a pirate game right now. Also, I'd kind of like to run ACKS in the Dwimmermount setting or Stonehell Dungeon in my Middle Sea setting using Delving DeeperSwords & Wizardry Core, the D&D Rules Cyclopedia, or AD&D 1E with some of my own customized character classes. In addition, I wouldn't mind running a sandbox of Hârnmaster starting in Kanday in Hârn. Aside from these four examples of other people's campaigns/settings, though, I have some others.


  • AD&D 1E: Flanaess Sector - I still have considerable work that I'd need to do, but in addition to the idea of using White Star, as mentioned previously, I wouldn't mind converting AD&D for the purpose.
  • XXXXX: Metahumans Insurgent - This could be run using almost any superhero game. My preferences would be, in order, GURPS 4E, CORPS, Guardians, or Villains & Vigilantes. The idea is that the world woke up one day a month or two ago and a portion of the population had metahuman powers. The players would be in the upper tier, the portion that counts one in a million as members (500 points in GURPS, 200AP/200SP in CORPS, and standard starting characters in the other games). There would be a lower tier, one in a hundred thousand, that have lesser abilities, and the rest of the population have no metahuman abilities. The campaign would start with the world coming to realize that metahumans exist, and then trace the resulting collapse of society into chiefdoms ruled by metahumans and groups of metahumans. Or maybe some other outcome, depending on how things went. It would be inspired by the TV series Heroes, the movies Push, Chronicle, Jumper, Limitless, Lucy, and the like, and the comic book series ESPers. That is, no costumes, no silly names.
  • RuneQuest 3 or 6: Time of the Gods - This is a relatively undeveloped setting in my head, of a world in the late bronze or early iron age where city-states legitimize their rule by invoking gods into physical form as their rulers, or are held in control by powerful sorcerers. This would draw on an article by Jenell Jaquays published in Dragon magazine under a different name, titled "When Gods Walk the Earth", in issue 144. I could probably also do this setting in GURPS with a very small amount of work, or maybe using Hârnmaster with a bit more work.
  • Fantasy Wargaming: The Crusaders - Mainly, this would be a way to both show off and develop the FW game system. The game would be centered on a group of characters who have gone to join in the Third Crusade behind Richard the Lionheart. It would need at least six players, though, and a couple of the characters would be pre-gens.
  • Realms of the Unknown: Tribes of the Volyet - This would use the maps of my Middle Sea setting, though not the "things I know" about that setting. In this campaign, the Long Sea (not the Middle Sea, which is to the east of that map) is renamed as the Volyet, with the players controlling clans on the eastern shore of the Volyet Sea. I have some events in mind, obviously, but the first part of the campaign would be the players getting used to the system and dealing with each other and some of the NPC clans in the region.
  • CORPS: Deindustrial Future Dark - This would be the more realistic version of my Deindustrial Future setting. In this one, magic and such is scaled way the heck back, to the point that they are hardly discernible in the setting. No super gunslingers, no spirits, no alchemical potions. At least, not in the same sense as the GURPS version I am running now. I could also run this with GURPS, but I like to find reasons to use CORPS.
  • Top Secret: Cyberpunk Shadows - Near-future using the Top Secret rules. There are some basic spaceflight rules in Dragon magazine, along with an article on lasers in Top Secret, and it's not really all that difficult to come up with stats and rules for other futuristic technologies. I haven't really thought through what I'd actually do with it yet, but it's an idea that keeps pushing itself on me.
  • Chivalry & Sorcery 2E: Denizens of the Pale - Another one that mostly exists to showcase a rules set, and also the historical setting, this campaign would have the players as Anglo-Norman settlers in the Pale in Ireland in the early 13th century. They would have to live with the surrounding Irish people, as conquerors or neighbors.
There you go, an even dozen other campaigns that I have desires for in my head, bringing the total I've written down here to eighteen. This is what happens when you don't game for too long. Or when I don't, anyway. Maybe some of them will inspire you to come up with something, or maybe I can figure out ways to run one or more of them. Realms of the Unknown, for example, is particularly suited to Play By (E-)Mail formats.

And, you know, I have still more campaigns in my head. If there's interest, maybe I'll write down some more.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

FINALLY!

So, after several years of looking in varying degrees of intensity, I finally have a (hopefully) regular gaming group again, for which I am running the game. It's a couple of old friends who live in the area.

When they agreed to let me run something, I gave them six choices:


  • MegaTraveller: Noble House - This would be my own MT setting, using my conversion and update of the Pocket Empires rules from T4 (which aren't complete right now, but I would have worked extra hard to get them ready in time to run the game). The story would revolve around a noble house and its retainers, and the intrigues of a rival house to discredit and dismantle them.
  • Top Secret: Special Missions Bureau - A Top Secret game set in the early '80s, with Cold War intrigue and globehopping adventure. I intended to take the results of the game and use them to provide a background for a second arc which would take place in the modern day.
  • White Star: The Flanaess Sector - In this one, the players would be gritty, down on their luck adventurers in the Flanaess Sector, against a background of interstellar rebellion against a distant empire. I'm afraid that I didn't present this option to the players very well, though it was considered.
  • Flashing Blades: Scourge of the Caribbean - Swashbuckling pirates in the Caribbean Sea!
  • GURPS Deindustrial Future - I presented this as a cross between Stephen King's Dark Tower series and Fallout without the nukes. The setting is the future a few hundred years after our civilization runs out of petroleum to fuel it. While electricity, and technology, does exist, the large-scale networks of power transmission and transportation infrastructure do not. Characters have access to items up to TL7 (most TL8 items require far too much interdependent, and so unavailable, infrastructure), but cost 2x as much as normal for every TL above 4 (roughly the 16th-18th centuries), which is the maximum easily sustainable technology level. The culture is heavily influenced by the American West, simply because that's easier to get everybody on the same page, but the world is split into, effectively, city-states and tribal chieftains - not unlike Europe's Migration Era after the fall of Rome. There's also some magic of a relatively subtle kind ("Path/Book Magic" for those of you who know GURPS) along with spirits, and alchemy of the standard GURPS sort ("snake oil") along with some other things like Gunslingers and traveling preachers of a sort.
  • CORPS Old Solar System - Dying Mars with its ancient civilizations and canals crossing the cold deserts, overcast Venus and its vast, jungle swamps, shallow seas, and saurian monsters. I hadn't yet figured out what would be around Jupiter and Saturn (or further out yet!), but Mercury was to be largely drawn from Space 1889's "Nodding World" with its planet-girdling World River. Lots of inspiration from C.L. Moore and Leigh Brackett.


After some discussion, the players settled on the GURPS Deindustrial Future game, despite the fact that none of them have played much GURPS (they have an ongoing Champions game and have stayed focused on HERO System, though like most sensible people they shied away from the sixth edition of that game). Since I haven't played much 4E GURPS myself, things have been a learning experience for us all. I hope to write up some about their characters and their first adventure (a saloon brawl that took us a long time because of our collective unfamiliarity with actually playing the game)  soon.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

[Obscure Games] Special: Games for Game Designers

I haven't done an Obscure Games for a while, but I thought that I'd do something a little bit different this time. Here's a list, with capsule reviews, of roleplaying games that game designers should be familiar with, in addition to D&D. These are games that introduce some sort of concept that I think should be considered by people designing roleplaying games. They are not necessarily my favorite games, though in many cases they are, nor are they necessarily games that as a whole are fun to play, only ones that have something of interest to add to the body of game design.

Adventurer Conqueror King System (aka ACKS): A variation on the "B/X" version of D&D, ACKS is one of the best D&D-like games around today. The published setting material is a little bit sketched out at the moment rather than detailed, but the main attraction, for me, is the work that the designers put in to make the economics of the game solid. This allows for games that center on trade and commerce as well as the traditional looting and pillaging. At higher levels of power, the characters get involved in larger-scale events (which you'll find is a common feature in the games I am listing here), especially doing well at the network of intelligence-gathering surrounding a "thieves' guild". That said, the style of economics they pursue is more relevant to a fairly "sophisticated" society such as the Roman Empire or Renaissance Europe rather than, say, a society of barbarian tribal groups, but it does seem to be serviceable for feudal settings as well. Still, the details could almost certainly be adapted to fit any economic system.

Albedo The Role-Playing Game: Often dismissed due to its "furry" content, Albedo is actually a solid hard-SF setting with innovative RPG mechanics that deserve more attention. Set in a region of space that is populated by genetically uplifted Terran animals (who basically awoke one day with full intelligence, raised by AI systems that taught them the sciences and so forth), the game follows the rising tensions between the Interstellar Confederacy (the ConFed) and the Independent Lapine Republic (ILR, or The Republic). Notable game systems include the unusual treatment of armor and injury and the author's first attempt at Ties/Antipathies and their effects on the character's Self-Image (see Lace & Steel below for the game designer's second foray at the concept). There's also a solid mechanic for simulating the character's ability to act in stressful situations, called "Coolness Under Fire". The emotional state of characters is an important area of design that has been largely ignored in the past.

Call of Cthulhu: At this point, most people know of this game and its primary innovation, the Sanity system. Still, I should at least mention it here.

Dungeon Crawl Classics: Mostly just a new way to approach the same game systems as D&D, while updating the game a bit, but still keeping the "old school" nature of the rules. The way that magic is handled, with Patrons and variable spell effects and so on, indicates a way to keep magic from becoming too predictable without screwing over players who choose to play magic-users.

Fantasy Wargaming: Generally only noted when people want to make fun of it, Fantasy Wargaming is a better design than its detractors would have it (if, unfortunately, underdeveloped and poorly laid-out in ways that lead to detraction by those who only read and never play). I've already done an extensive review of this one, which I link at the beginning of this paragraph. Systems to watch include the unified magic and religion system, what is among the earliest attempts to deal with characters' emotions in the "temptation" system (I'm not sure whether Call of Cthulhu's Sanity system predates it, as both games were released in 1981), and the integration of the medieval "physics" system (that is, astrology) into nearly every aspect of the game.

Flashing Blades: Still, in my opinion, the best swashbuckling RPG out there. It has quick, yet flavorful, mechanics to cover the sorts of scrapes that musketeers and pirates find themselves in, as well as the sorts of dirty tricks they pull to get out of those scrapes. Most importantly, though, it has an extensive "Career" system that allows a character to start at the bottom and work their way to the top in one field or another, whether that be the Royal Bureaucracy, the Church, or the Military, among other pursuits.

GURPS: Among other things good about it, GURPS includes a lot, and I mean a lot, of useful detail in its various supplements, from how quickly characters can dig to potential problems with pregnancies. I'd especially point designers toward some of its alternative magic systems, and most especially to the one they call "Path/Book Magic" (sometimes just "Path Magic") in the fourth edition. In the third edition, it was called "Spirit Magic".

Hârnmaster: Designed specifically for the world of Hârn, obviously, but people have adapted it to other settings as well. The system is not very different than that of RuneQuest, but the way that combat wounds are handled should be something that every designer knows about. Basically, each wound is described based on the type of damage (blunt, edged, puncture, etc), the severity of the blow, the location hit, and so forth. If the wound is bleeding, that is noted. Each wound is given a rating indicating how severe and therefore how much it affects the character through pain, tissue damage, and so on, and then when it is treated it also gets a rating for how fast it will heal. That also leads to examining if the wound becomes infected. Treatments are based on the type of damage, so that a bruise might only need an herbal compress, while a similar cut needs to be bandaged, and a compound fracture might need a surgeon (or chirurgeon). This sounds complicated, but in fact is very easy to do at the table, only slightly more complex than RuneQuest's tracking of hit points by location or GURPS's handling of "major wounds", critical hits, special damage types and hit locations, and so on.

Lace & Steel: Designer Paul Kidd's second RPG design, it refines some of the concepts that he worked on in Albedo, above. The setting is fun, with a number of mainly Greek mythological races (trolls and pixies being the main exceptions) living in a mostly Renaissance-era setting with magic. The biggest weakness of the game is the reliance on proprietary card decks for major game systems. That was fashionable at the time, but there's a reason that almost no games use those methods today. To me, one of the most useful design ideas is the concept of "travel fatigue". Basically, characters roll against their Travel skill and Endurance every day or two of travel to avoid minor discomforts, or even losing items of equipment or damaging clothing. Properly-cooked food or spending the night at the inn instead of in the open can help recover this fatigue during the journey, with more luxurious rooms providing a better chance of recovering from the fatigue. There are also mass combat and ship combat systems, so that the players can be involved in major events.

Pendragon: Using a simplification of Chaosium's Basic Roleplaying system as a base, Pendragon is simply the best Arthurian fantasy game out there. It includes several innovations that help reinforce the mood and setting, such as a system of Personality Traits and Passions that provide a method of depicting characters' emotions, built-in high-level play such as tending the characters' various manors that provide them with income and a base of operations, and the concept of "Dynastic Play", where the player will eventually end up, in a continuing campaign, playing their original character's children, grandchildren, and so on. Personally, I like the fourth edition, which includes a magic system and provision for wizard and female characters, but I understand that some people are less fond of that one. I don't know much about the fifth edition, to be fair.

Reign: Using the "One Roll Engine" (ORE) system, this fantasy game focuses on faction play. That is, the characters will be in charge of some organization or group that allows them to participate in the high-level events of the setting. One notable feature is the ability to either design or roll a character randomly, in a way that doesn't privilege one over the other. But it's the faction rules that should grab the attention of a prospective game designer.

The Riddle of Steel: Takes a lot of ideas from Pendragon and other games, which is fine, but the main innovation that this game brings is a solid grounding in actual medieval weapons use. Also includes another way to integrate character personality and emotions into the game mechanics. Unfortunately difficult to find, there is a "successor" game called Blade of the Iron Throne that apparently develops the system further in a more sword & sorcery setting, but I haven't seen that game and can't comment on it.

Space 1889: For whatever reasons, some people don't like the game system that GDW developed for this game, which was a simplified version of the "GDW House System" that powered the second edition of Twilight 2000, along with other games such as Traveller: The New Era and Dark Conspiracy. That said, the method that the designers chose to represent the abilities of inventors was a surprisingly interesting system, pointing toward an alternative way to approach "magical" abilities in a game, or could probably be adapted to any of a number of different game abilities.

Stars Without Number: Another game that is built on a D&D-like game system, the setting is purely designed to facilitate gaming, and should be examined carefully for its lessons in that vein. In addition, the game includes a number of Referee tools to facilitate running it, such as faction rules (see Reign, above), the concept of location tags (to provide a quick differentiation between one place and another), and so on. The game is a mastercourse in game design focused on the needs of a roleplaying campaign. All of the other games from Sine Nomine Publishing (the imprint of the designer, Kevin Crawford) are also worth examining for various reasons, generally having to do with systems that enable and facilitate "sandbox" style play while also providing a dynamic background.

Swordbearer: There are a lot of little rules choices here that serve to make a fairly unusual gaming experience. Notable ones include the abstracted approach to character wealth, where wealth is related to social status directly and finding treasure only acts to change the effective social status of the character (this has been approached in other games since, with varying degrees of success), the highly flavorful magic system, and (for me at least) the detailed travel rules, with parties taking time for breaks during the day's march, an extensive table of terrain and how long it takes to cross the various types, and so on. Combined with the "travel fatigue" rules of Lace & Steel, above, and the wilderness survival rules found in some Traveller supplements, I would be in some bliss.

Traveller: Most roleplaying games include the concept of increasing a character's personal abilities through "experience" or similar victory point systems, to the point that computer RPGs are partially defined by this feature. Traveller provides an interesting alternative to this method of character advancement. In this game, characters increase in power through acquiring wealth, building networks of contacts and favors, and so forth rather than through increasing their personal abilities. Advancement is also not tied to any predetermined abstract scheme (gaining victory points for finding treasure or completing story goals or whatever), but is concretely related to what the characters do in the setting. This doesn't mean that the characters can't increase in skill over time, but the timeframe is much longer than most other RPGs choose, and also is not tied to any action the characters perform other than pursuing that skill increase. MegaTraveller allows for more experience-based advancement, but the timeframe is still incredibly long compared to other RPGs. This helps add to the sense of the game that time passes while the characters work on long-term problems. The game has a long history and includes a number of excellent supplements, too, ranging from detailed survival rules in the "Environment" series from Gamelords to the excellent player-facing dynastic game found in the Pocket Empires supplement for the fourth edition of the game.

There are likely other games that I could include (CORPS comes to mind), but generally the principles that I think that they present are too difficult to explain. Obviously, a game designer should be conversant in a wide number of games in order to have a body of ideas on which to draw and then fit to the particular game being designed.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Converting Pocket Empires

I grabbed this from the "Noble" article at
Wookieepedia. They don't credit the artist, but
it seems to be Gonzalo Flores, according to the
signature. If he wants me to take it down, I will.
Speaking of converting Pocket Empires to MegaTraveller, I have done a bit of work toward that which I think could be shared here. I've been working out the probabilities from one set of difficulty numbers to another. For your entertainment and possible value, here are the equivalent target numbers for a roll of 2, 2.5, 3, 4, and 5 dice (as used in Marc Miller's Traveller, aka T4, and also, except for the 2.5D roll, in Traveller5) vs. an average stat of 7:

2D = 7+
2.5D = 9+
3D = 10+
4D = 12+
5D = 15+ (figured as stat of 7 with a DM+3, or a target of 10, to get to about the same odds as 12+)

Note that these don't convert very perfectly to the difficulty levels of other Traveller editions, but then they don't really need to. The point is to get in the same ballpark, not necessarily to hit the exact same odds.

My current thinking is that T4 "Difficult" should be MT "Difficult" with an automatic DM+2, T4 "Formidable" and "Staggering" should both convert to MT "Difficult" (I could give them DMs of +1 or -1 to match the odds exactly, but that gets a bit fiddly), and T4 "Impossible" should be MT "Formidable". As an aside, that should also make T5 difficulties of 6D or higher equivalent to MT "Impossible".

I am assuming the use of the MgT stat modifiers. I haven't decided whether to use those, the original MT ones, or the ones in a set of house rules for MT I found online, where the modifier = (stat/3)-2 rounded up, or a version where the modifier is (stat/3)-1 rounded down. I'm kinda leaning toward that last one.

One of the issues involved with conversion is that I can't just take the given difficulty and port it over directly. Some of the T4 tasks rely on two attributes, which distort the probabilities since attributes are around three to five times more potent in T4 (and also TNE and T5, though that's not really relevant here) than they are in most other editions. So, a T4 task which relies on two attributes would have a target of around 14 or less on average (since the average attribute is a 7), while in MT by the book it would be an average of DM+2. A Routine task would have a 100% chance of succeeding in T4 (2D vs. a target of 14 or less), while it would have an 83% chance in MT (base target 7+, DM+2 = final target 5+ = 83%). So, instead what I need to do is check each task, figure its base odds with average stats and skill-0 if necessary, and convert it from there.

Edit to add: I want to include a link to this article, which is kept at the Internet Archive Wayback Machine.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Alternate Traveller Campaign Frames: Noble House

I've been putting this one off mostly because I really wanted to do the subject justice. (Edit to add: Not that I think that I have, but I have been letting the perfect be the enemy of the good enough for too long now.) This is the campaign frame for Traveller that I myself most want to play in, or run if I must. It has been generally unsupported in official Traveller products, with the closest being Adventure 5 Trillion Credit Squadron and the colonial economic model in World Tamer's Handbook (and don't get me wrong, those were good and potentially useful for the subject), but in the fourth edition, Marc Miller's Traveller (also called T4 for short), the supplement Pocket Empires came out.

Oh, this was a joy for me to see. Finally, the game would support campaigns inspired by Dune and other sources involving high-level politics and intrigue. There were rules covering everything from the economic development of worlds to incorporating new worlds into your pocket empire to setting up and finalizing a marriage between members of your noble family and another one. Assassination attempts, espionage, politics on the floor of the Senate, all of these things were covered in the high-level game here.

There were some weaknesses, of course. The basic game had a development turn a full year in length, which could lead to pretty severe discontinuities between the Pocket Empires layer and the roleplaying layer. The rules for voting factions in politics were a little rudimentary, but still serviceable. The military forces abstractions were perhaps a bit too abstract (although this was at least partly remedied with the addition of Imperial Squadrons, which was a major revision and update to T4 standards of Trillion Credit Squadron). The handling of corporations avoided many of the things that give that aspect of play its distinct flavor, with no insider trading, no boardroom politics, no shares changing hands, only what amounts to an abstracted hostile takeover and a few other simple tactics.

Some of the elements of the noble life have been handled over the years. I mentioned a number of resources in the last installment of "Alternate Traveller Campaign Frames", and at least one more has appeared since then in the form of an article titled "The Influence Game", posted over at Wayhaven Traveller, which could be used to fix the lackluster politics rules in Pocket Empires.

That really just leaves the problems of the speed of play and the generic, unfulfilling corporation rules. The corporations could be handled by looking at the rules on high finance and setting up and running corporations, getting them onto publicly traded markets, and so on that are found in GURPS Traveller: Far Trader, but it still misses the whole corporate struggle aspect as the authors left out the dirty tricks from the Stock Exchange floor. For that, we have to look further afield, to a supplement for the game TORG called Nippon Tech. That included a whole sequence of corporate warfare and a character type, the "Mega-corporation CEO", that could use it. Issuing junk bonds, taking advantage of insider trading, and most importantly the results of adventuring such as sabotage or stolen information are all embedded into the game as warfare against the opponents happens on the trading floor as much as in a firefight.

A lot of these different layers include the idea of a turn length of a week to a month. It shouldn't be hard to incorporate that into the main Pocket Empires sequence. That would fit everything more tightly to the roleplaying layer of the campaign, which effectively has a "turn length" of one week, since that's how often Patron and Rumor checks are made, how long a Jump takes, and so on.

All of this is important to me, as I am (slowly) working to convert Pocket Empires to MegaTraveller standards. I think that edition is the easiest to convert to any of the various other editions out there, so that it could be easily used with CT, CE, MgT, T5, or whatever. I intend to flesh out the corporate section and the politics especially, but also spend some more time on the military elements. Integrating it more completely with the roleplaying is my priority, of course. Setting out a specific method of generating the Noble House and its starting assets will be important too, as will working out ways to incorporate the players into the House.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Gaming Settings

CC by-nc-sa Lonnie Dunn, found here:
https://www.flickr.com/photos/archaicwarrior/5969822137
As I've been working on a fantasy RPG that works from different assumptions than the D&D stream (while still being "old school", since it draws heavily on Traveller for its mechanics), I've been thinking about what makes a setting good for gaming. Here are some of those thoughts, taken as a quick tour through some gaming and fiction worlds.

Middle-Earth: Tolkien's world is great for his stories, but terrible for gaming. Everything in it is already pretty well set and with little wiggle room. Plus, it is the prototype of what we might call "generic gaming fantasy", with its elves, dwarves, humans, and halflings. While I love it for Tolkien's stories, for gaming it is dreary and dull. A couple of games manage to work some usable gaming material out of it, but in each case it is either by leaving Tolkien's setting behind to some degree or by so limiting the area and scope that the players can't get their characters tied up in Tolkien's plots. One thing that I do love about Middle-Earth is Tolkien's proclivity toward nature writing. A lot of people count that as a flaw in his works, but I love it. And the singing too.

Glorantha: While it has elves and dwarves, Glorantha does everything so differently that it is just bonkers. Anyway, elves (aldrayami) and dwarves (mostali) are the merest sideshows in the craziness of Gloranthan societies. With ducks, trolls, and even wilder thinking species, Glorantha is a place people will either love or hate. The bronze age aesthetic appeals to me, though I sometimes get lost in Stafford's wildness. The way that spirits and magic are handled in the setting is well worth anyone examining, and one can examine it from the perspective of simulation (RuneQuest) or narrative (HeroQuest), depending on your predilection. It might be best to look at how both games approach the setting.

Oerth (aka The World of Greyhawk): While this is technically generic gaming fantasy of the type noted above, the treatment of the setting as a real place, where population numbers and numbers of troops are recorded, where trade goods are placed by region of origin, and where gaming necessities like examining what the players are doing as a profession are incorporated as institutions in the setting make this one of the most vital and essential gaming settings to look at. It doesn't hurt that it's also one of the most diverse settings, with the populations of the centerpiece continent, the Flanaess, being largely people of color (and this has been true for longer than that was something that audiences demanded).

Tékumel: Probably the first setting specifically for gaming to be published - though it originated long before gaming, Professor Barker developed it in a role-playing campaign. As a result, it has some elements that are specifically directed toward the needs of player-characters in the setting, such as the underworld of every major city. Being the first, it was also not tied to the assumptions of previous efforts and so is a gloriously insane look at some of the potentials of worldbuilding. Like the earliest D&D games seem to have been, it is a "science-fantasy" setting, with advanced technology sitting next to marvelous magic. If you're a worldbuilder and haven't looked at Tékumel yet, you're missing out.

Dark Sun: This was the first published setting I saw where the potentials of worldbuilding came clear to me. It happened as I was sitting in on a game session, waiting for one of the players, and I listened as the party leader chose to set aside some gold in favor of carrying more water. That was stunning to me at the time, since I had gotten used to players taking as much gold as possible to maximize their experience points. Just crazy! I looked further into it, and was unimpressed by some of the decisions, but the way that the desert environment was baked into the setting still leaves me in awe. The ways that the generic gaming fantasy thinking species were re-imagined is worth examining. I also learned how important a seemingly little thing like logistics can be to creating flavor.

Hârn: Yes, humans, dwarves, and elves. There are some weaknesses of this setting, but the lovingly crafted detail is inspiring. Treating characters as if they were more than just a collection of statistics (though there are a lot of statistics in the game that goes along with the setting, it is also suitable for a number of different rules sets), and the setting as if it were more than merely a backdrop in front of which characters kill things, helps to set a tone that I appreciate deeply.

Spelljammer: A look at what can be done with generic gaming fantasy if cut loose from some of its assumptions. I love it, but it seems to have been eclipsed by Planescape, perhaps because the existence of Spelljamming ships deforms other settings that include them, so that Oerth, the Forgotten Realms, and Krynn sat uneasily among the assumed worlds of the setting and should never have been included there in the first place.

The Young Kingdoms: Worth examining to see how a fiction setting (in this case, the Elric of Melniboné stories) can be fitted to the needs of a gaming campaign. By focusing on areas that are mentioned but only incompletely explored in the fiction sources, while carefully avoiding breaking canon, the setting details in the Stormbringer RPG (and its other - in my opinion inferior - incarnation, Elric) provide an interesting and alternative take on some concepts that have become over-familiar. The Melnibonéans sit as a sort of decadent elvish society that provides a useful contrast to the sorrowful or joyful ones that one can get from emphasizing different aspects of Tolkien's elves.

Hyboria: Speaking of Elric (who was explicitly created to be the antithesis of Conan), Howard's setting happens to be useful in gaming terms, with plenty of different directions to choose to travel as characters. It's also very helpful in providing a world in which all, well most, of the thinking species are just humans. Unfortunately, in part it does this by making all sorts of assumptions about "race" and whatnot, so it should be examined carefully and sifted finely to extract the useful parts.

Which reminds me to add that I am not very fond of settings that try to "reimagine orcs" as noble whatevers. As I have often said, if you're doing that, why do you have orcs at all? What is it about orcs that you need in that setting and cannot get from just making the adversaries human? The whole point of orcs is to give players a foe they can slaughter with a minimum of moral quandary. "Subverting" that simply removes the only reason for orcs to exist. It's one thing to examine orc society in detail, as is done in Hârn for example, but pointless to make them out to be some sort of noble savage, unjustly misunderstood by humanity. That role is equally suitable for humans, whether of a different skin color than the players' characters or perhaps just with differing sartorial assumptions, and more pertinent for that theme as well. The subverted orc is just a trap for the players that they can't rightly get out of: "Here are some orcs, go ahead and kill them!" "OK, now that you've killed a bunch of them, here's why you're awful people for doing that." It's not a moral test, it's just being a shitty Referee.

Anyway, the point here is that a gaming setting should pay attention to what the players will be doing with their characters in the setting. You can't just plop them down and assume that they will do things. You have to give them things to do, and you have to arrange the setting so that they will be able to do those things. For instance, Oerth has the institution of the "adventurer", who is someone who does a certain type of thing and is given privileges to pursue that occupation in the assumed laws of the land. In Tékumel, there are networks of tunnels underneath the cities that interested parties can explore in a search for lost technology and such. And so on. Put those things in your world setting.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

The Lord of the Rings, Power Creep, and Notes Toward a Manifesto

There's been a minor surfeit of blog posts about Middle-Earth lately (a couple of days ago, something like four different posts happened within a few hours, and it seems that none of the bloggers had been communicating with each other over it). It's interesting to me because I've been re-reading the Tolkien books since the beginning of the year, and re-watching the extended Lord of the Rings films (Jackson really should have stopped there). I continued on that cinematic retrospective by re-watching a bunch of '80s-era "barbarian fantasy" films, but that's another story. In any case, I am not sure why there's been such a surge of Tolkien in the gaming blog community lately, but I have to say that I'm happy to see it.

It's interesting to me that Tolkien expresses one of the themes that I've been pursuing in gaming (a theme, sadly, which the industry as a whole has apparently not only abandoned but seemingly repudiated): the theme of the heroism of the small. By that, I don't necessarily mean small in size, though that is how it sometimes manifests in the literature, but the heroism of those who are not granted extraordinary powers (or those whose supposedly extraordinary powers are of such a nature that keeps them still within the realms of ordinary people).

I want to remember that a mere 4th level Fighting Man was given the title of "Hero", and that it only takes 8th level to be a "Superhero". These crazy ideas of 15th or 20th level (or more!) should be limited to actual gods, or at least demigods. The antics of the characters in The Order of the Stick should be remembered as those of outlandishly powerful ones, not assumed as the baseline for what player-characters are able to do.

I think that I first noticed this was happening when GURPS 4th edition increased the recommended baseline of character power (starting points value) by 50% over the previous edition, from 100 points to 150 points. Later, they decided that their attempt to return to the traditional "dungeon crawl" style of play, which was therefore based in large part on D&D and similar games, would recommend that characters start at the amazing level of 250 points, 2 and a half times that of "heroic" characters from the previous edition. When I would express disapproval of this in the forums or to GURPS bloggers, I would be dismissed lightly with variations of "it's fun!", and nevermind that I was sitting there telling them that it wasn't fun for me.

Of course, we're all quite aware that the 5th edition of D&D has steeply deprecated the low levels, getting characters to 4th level in about the same number of experience points that used to bring them their first level increase in pre-WotC editions. Previously, those first three levels were considered important, being, as the apparently apocryphal quote attributed to Gary Gygax has it, the characters' backstory (the earliest version of the quote found on the internet by people attempting to source it actually specifies the first six levels). Even if apocryphal, however, it remains true that it was at 4th level that the Fighting Man was first called a Hero. Now, though, those first three levels are just something to race through to get to "the good stuff".

As a brief aside, this is all related to one of the most obnoxious types of gaming story that can be inflicted on others: the "Natural 20". Somehow, the 5% chance has risen to some sort of magical power in gaming, probably due to critical hit rules being blown out of proportion. Clueless gamers have perpetrated countless boring stories about how this or that improbable thing happened in their game because they rolled a "natural 20", or sometimes a 1, and the Referee ruled that meant that something otherwise impossible occurred. The fact that one or two of these stories are actually funny only makes the rest of them that much worse, as the aforementioned clueless gamers are unable to discriminate between the good and the bad, which may be the very reason that they are clueless in the first place.

Anyway, this tendency in published gaming to move toward higher starting power levels, or quickly getting to them, has caused me to move back toward games that don't make those high-powered assumptions. Traveller, in its various incarnations, tends in that direction, so it's been very attractive to me. Well, in the original and MegaTraveller versions, at least. Marc Miller's Traveller (T4), too, and maybe T5. And GURPS Traveller was written before the game that powers it started to creep toward greater baseline assumed power levels. There are other games I've been moving back toward, too: Flashing Blades, Lace & Steel, CORPS, various D&D retroclones like Stars Without Number, ACKS, and Swords & Wizardry: White Box, or more variant versions like Dungeon Crawl Classics (which ranges widely in power across its 11 levels, but definitely hits the right notes for me before 5th level or so), not to mention actual pre-WotC editions of (A)D&D and its variants like The Arcanum. It doesn't mean simpler rules, either, since games like Hârnmaster are definitely in the low-power category.

Over on social media, I wrote, "I'm more interested in the sort of heroics that are performed by kids with six months of training in what end of the rifle a bullet comes out and then are thrown into the fray than in specialists who have constant elite training for years and then go on a tightly scheduled and planned mission once every couple of years. As it were." I think that sort of summarizes the issue. Special forces are interesting because their circumstances are extraordinary by design, but it's the common soldier in extraordinary circumstances who is more interesting than the circumstances. Frodo and Sam's, Merry's, or Pippin's stories were more interesting to me than Gandalf's or even Aragorn's. It was more remarkable for Eowyn to kill the Witch-King than it would have been if Galadriel had.

Now, sure, it won't be every low-powered game that has some kind of amazing result, but that's sort of the point. If every game is "remarkable", then they start to get lost in the forest of remark. See above about the "Natural 20" type of story, where any 5% chance becomes the one in a million longshot. That doesn't elevate the once-in-twenty, it devalues the one-in-a-million.

I don't expect that this will get rid of the high-power style of gaming, and I don't think that it should. I just want there to be a place for more human scales of game.

Monday, January 22, 2018

A Kickstarter To Check Out

It's not a RPG, but wargames are also pretty awesome in my opinion. Anyway, this one has crossed its funding threshold, so it's going to happen. Take a look at America Falling, a wargame about near future conflict in the Lower 48, as the political fault lines in the US break apart and the nation is thrown into a second Civil War. There are rules for cyberwarfare, turning units to your side, and so on. I'm a little bit sad that Cascadia* didn't make the list of insurgent factions, but Ecotopia will do, and you can probably work up a rules variant that includes other insurgents. Speaking of rules, the rules PDF can be downloaded (pdf link) for free to preview it.

The stretch goals include making versions of the game for Europe and Asia, so that looks pretty fun.

Anyway, looks like it could be a pretty good game. At $63 for the game and shipping, it's not too bad price-wise either. Since the MSRP will be $80, it's a very good deal.

*I am aware of at least two different Cascadias, actually. The first and largest is a loose coalition of people who think that the Pacific Northwest can go it alone and probably should, especially if the rest of the country breaks apart. They're pretty interested in becoming a Canadian province in that event and have developed optimistic, if unlikely, processes for doing so. The second is identitarian and believes that the PNW should be a "white" homeland. From what I've seen, their plan for this, if you can call it a "plan", is stockpiling guns.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

I Really Need To Be In The Habit Of Writing

Well, as has been the case for a couple of years, I didn't really post a lot last year. I'm hoping to change that - which I've said before, so who knows how it'll turn out this time.

One good thing in my gaming life lately is that I've finally figured out some of the details of the sort-of retroclone of MegaTraveller I want to do. Cepheus Engine seems like the perfect place to start, since it doesn't have any of the weird and confusing restrictions that are in the MgT SRD. It should be easy enough to redefine difficulties to fit the MT ones (separated by 4 points instead of 2 as in the CE version), and then going back to the original version for things like aging, encounters, and so on. A major change to the task system I want to make is to drop tasks one category. That is, instead of a Routine task succeeding on a 7+ and a Difficult one on 11+, the Routine task will succeed on 3+ and the Difficult one on 7+. This is to compensate for the assumption that the Digest Group people had that a character would typically have a DM of +4. It allows me to get back to Traveller-style assumptions about skill levels. With the added emphasis on level-0 skills in MT, that makes the increase of difficulty by one category for lacking the skill back into a meaningful thing. Another change will be to make exceptional results happen at a margin of 4 points instead of 2, but that's probably not meaningful to the casual reader. Damage results in combat will remain the same, though.

Notice how I called it a "sort-of" retroclone. That's because I've decided that I want to make some more radical changes too. For one, I'll be getting rid of the "hit points" system that is common to Traveller, and replacing it with an "injury" model of wounds. That is, when you get hit, there will be a mostly descriptive result that applies to your character until it heals. For example, "moderate bleeding slash to right arm", which consists of the following elements: moderate, bleeding, slash, and right arm. "Moderate" indicates the severity, which influences how long it takes to heal, the kind of treatment required, and also determines how much that wound affects attempts to perform other actions. "Bleeding" means that the wound is causing blood loss (which is the one place where there will be a sort of hit points). "Slash" is mainly important for determining what sort of treatment would be required to help the healing process. "Right Arm", obviously, indicates which tasks are affected by the wound. There are a number of other elements that could end up in a wound description, too, and during healing it could become infected.

Another thing I want to do is write it as a fantasy game instead of an SF one. I've been intrigued by the idea ever since the Thieves' World boxed set included Traveller statistics for the characters of that setting.

A big change (some will think) that I want to make is to revise character creation. Characters will start at a young age and not go through a career lifepath. Instead, there will be a number of skill points that the player can spend to give starting skills. After that, the MT methods of improving skills will come into play during the game. I want to model a lot of that on Flashing Blades, actually.

Another change I want to include is a personality system derived from the ones in Pendragon, Fantasy Wargaming, and Lace & Steel. I feel like that is something that can improve the game experience in a fantasy setting, which is usually more intimately connected to character motivations than an SF one generally tends toward. Yes, that is an over-broad statement. I hope that people will find the personality system I write to be useful in their SF games too. Heck, I might end up writing a new version of this game that goes back to the SF setting.

Anyway, I've been working on that. This is my first post since July. Here's hoping that I can post some more.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Tasks In MegaTraveller And What Roleplaying Games Really Are

Yeah, this is the model I was trying to evoke, sort of.
I've had a number of articles sitting in draft form for a long time now, so I guess I'll just publish them, maybe polishing them up a little first (or finishing them, in some cases). I will note that, with this particular article, some of my ideas have changed a bit. Mostly in reaction to the excellent "Classic Traveller: Out of the Box" series, and especially this article and its sequel, I am less certain that the "task chain" idea is necessarily the best idea, though I do still think that it was a useful innovation (and it may still be the best idea for the way I want to play - this is something that I am still working through in my head, so don't take my current indecision as a final attitude). Even more, though, I am questioning the baseline assumptions of MegaTraveller in regard to assumed skill and other asset levels. According to some designer's notes in Challenge magazine and elsewhere, the DGP crew were assuming a base skill + attributes and other bonuses of +4 for a competent character. Any further development along the MegaTraveller line of design, such as I am working on, is going to have to tackle that assumption and assess it in practice. To a great extent, I would like to get back to the simpler characters of classic Traveller, but with the better systems support (such as the expanded variety of "task chains" I discuss in this article) found in MegaTraveller - but this is now digressing in some ways from the point of the article I had written here. So, without further ado, let's get on with it, shall we?

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These seem like two different topics, but I am really using the one as a way to talk about the other. I am increasingly fond (even beyond my original preferences for the edition) of the ways that MegaTraveller chose to do things, even as I am not always fond of the particular setting decisions made or the failures of the game's production. The edition earned its nickname of "MegaErrata", with the current consolidated errata for the edition weighing in at 69 pages, a book in itself.

One of the useful formalizations that MegaTraveller brought to the game was the "task", a unified format for describing methods of resolving actions in the game. Tasks were broken down by difficulty, usually one or two assets that promoted success, and various complications and risks inherent to the task, along with the amount of time that attempting the task takes. Along with this, the game included formal rules for retrying failed tasks, and this was where the Jack of all Trades skill was given its moment to shine, since characters would have to come up with a new approach to failed tasks (so that they aren't doing the same thing and expecting different results), and the skill gave characters a leg up on that as a way of modeling the flexibility and broad knowledge of such a Renaissance person. Helpfully, the game also included a realistic assessment of the benefits of having computer assistance with tasks, the effects of working quickly or cautiously, and so on. It's an elegant system that has many deep implications regarding the nature of the game, and even provides insight into the nature of roleplaying games generally.

One of those implications was never explicitly spelled out, to my knowledge. Tasks were sometimes presented in what might be called a "task chain". These are the flowcharts and stepped procedures that the game used to break down complex actions into discrete tasks that would be checked in order, and that could be varied to provide the players' characters the highest benefit. It's that last element that makes the task chain really useful in terms of playing a roleplaying game.

In a sense, a roleplaying game can be thought of as a random event generator, with the events generated being used to drive the players to make choices that, combined together, outline the events of the game that are constructed into a story. In the earliest games, the random events were of two main sorts: encounters and conflict resolution. This is fine, but leaves an emphasis on combat as being the main source of events due to complications. Some games choose what we might call "diegetic" (referring to the film distinction between diegetic sounds that originate from elements within the story, such as music playing on a radio, and non-diegetic sounds that are used to help illustrate the story, such as the score) considerations as the primary source of events, while others look to "narrative" considerations of pacing, action, and so on. There are also "game rule" considerations, which are those that relate to the game rules specifically, as distinct from the diegetic and narrative considerations, such as the tracking of abstract "hit points" and similar elements. These last typically intersect with the first two considerations (such as when hit points are understood as a marker of the narrative importance of the character, or when they are used to represent the physical toughness of the character).

MegaTraveller decided to expand resolution to provide potential event complications from various failure points in normal activities, and provide tools for the Referee to easily and quickly outline unusual activities. Combat is the main task chain that most players are familiar with, and is usually one of the more detailed elements of any given set of roleplaying rules. It consists of a set of tasks that can be chained together according to player choices which affect game state variables (character and equipment damage, resource expenditure, and so on). MegaTraveller further outlined a number of other task chains, though mostly in third-party materials. Digest Group provided the most of these, from medical procedures (in a series of articles in Travellers' Digest) to exploration (in World Builder's Handbook), all the way to various starship operations (in Starship Operator's Manual, Vol. 1). The Keith Brothers expanded on some starship operations related to starports in a pair of articles in Far and Away magazine. In each of these, the procedure is broken down into discrete steps, each step presented as a task. The steps might rely on different assets to promote success than other steps, which is how complex activities requiring multiple assets were best modeled, rather than incorporating all of the assets into a single task roll. Frequently, the players are also given choices as to the specific order of some steps, skipping steps to cut corners, and other methods of modifying the details to achieve the precise levels of risk and reward related to the task chain that they are willing to take on. Failure at any given point in the task chain has defined effects that introduce complications into the game with which the players will need to deal. Task chains also include the random encounter tables and similar normal event generators, as in the starship task chains where certain steps include checks to see if pirates or customs inspectors show up. In a broad sense, a campaign can be understood as one long, complex, and somewhat freeform task chain (in which case, the "campaign frame" I've discussed elsewhere can be understood as the specific task chain being used) into which a variety of other task chains are fitted.

Those complications generally take up some amount of resources, whether that is time, equipment, medical treatment, money, ammunition, or whatever. Each complication introduces an effect into the ongoing campaign and alters the precise trajectory that the characters take as a result.

What players need in order to feel like they are playing a roleplaying game rather than just rolling dice is the ability to make choices that affect the outcome of activities. This is incorporated into the task chain by allowing the specific order of events to be altered with appropriate consequences, the configuration and nature of risks to be determined (such as protecting an injured character behind a defensive line of healthy characters, adding to the risk of the latter while minimizing the risk to the former, performing a task hastily, saving time but risking failure, or the like), determining the allocation of various resources, and so on. In addition, the players can introduce a particular task chain by attempting to resolve a situation using a given method. Interacting with a person encountered might involve an interpersonal task chain, a combat task chain, or some other sequence, and the specific choice of which to use and the results that come from it will have an impact on the subsequent events in the campaign.

Because task chains can introduce a number of story elements autonomously, without significant Referee input, they are a very useful tool. They allow the Referee to concentrate on higher-level aspects of the setting, such as ongoing plots by recurring NPCs, setting events, and domain-level activities, while still keeping the players' characters grounded in the specific events that affect them. The Referee has a number of predefined task chains related to common activities (approaching and leaving a system, combat, medical care, trade- and commerce-related activities, wilderness travel and exploration, and so on) and only has to worry about unusual activities (changes to encounter tables due to setting events such as a coup d'état in the area, for instance).

This concept of task chains provides an alternative or complement to the common concept of breaking a roleplaying session into "scenes", modeled on traditional fiction. Certainly, MegaTraveller made use of that concept of scenes as well, with the system of "nuggets" for presenting adventures as a series of scenes or scene clusters that flowed into following events depending on how the nugget was resolved. Nuggets were never formally incorporated into the game, though, and were mainly a way to think about the structure of scenarios. In practice, the nugget method pushed scenario designers toward linear, or "railroad", adventure styles, so they seem like a net liability.

Combined with the system of various NPC types and other encounter rolls found in the basic game flow, task chains help define an approach to gaming that enhances the open nature of a roleplaying/adventure game.

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That was the article I'd previously written. I want to add that my idea of "task chains" is not limited to what we might conventionally think of as "tasks" in the MegaTraveller sense. An item like rolling for random encounters or events is part of a task chain, in the sense I am using it here, as are other events and items that aren't under player character influence. The point is that it is a resolution system that is a sub-game of the whole game being played. Task chains can consist of other task chains, such as the "main loop", as it were, of the basic game flow I mention and link above being an overall task chain, which can be composed of subroutines (again, as it were) of combat, finding cargo, landing a spacecraft, or whatever. I think that computer programmers will probably see what I am going for here pretty quickly, and others might be able to relate it to the general structure of a computer program as well. That said, it would be a computer program written in pseudocode, with the Referee and players being generally able to parse even the most abstracted "commands" in the loop, and to break them down into further detail as the situation warrants.

Monday, February 13, 2017

An Update - Still Alive!

Looking around, I couldn't find where this comes
from. I like it, but if the owner wants me to
take it down, just let me know.
Wow, has it really been nearly a year? Last year wasn't much fun for me. Whatever, on to the post.

I'm not quite ready to be back fully yet, but I am around. I'm occasionally posting on the Traveller groups on G+, some stuff on Facebook, and occasional other groups. I do intend to return to the blog.

I'm still working on a MegaTraveller retroclone, based on the Mongoose OGL and incorporating elements of other editions. After discussions online and thinking about it, I want to really get back to the sandbox tools of CT LBB77, but with the rules influenced by some of the MT developments. One thing that I've learned about spaceships is that reaction drives are subject to the square-cube law, since thrust increases by the square while mass increases by the cube, speaking roughly. Building that into the ship design sequence should push designs toward smaller ships. I've been thinking about some other things, too.

I'm pretty certain that I am going to continue writing up the project I gave the working title "Flanaess Sector" as an AD&D 1E/OSRIC product. I'll import some of the alternatives to Illithids and other Product Identity races from sources like Adventures Dark and Deep, but otherwise it's mainly writing up tech items, a spaceship construction and combat system, and star system details. I am also trying to decide if it should be more science fantasy like Star Wars, Warhammer 40K, or White Star, or harder SF on the order of Traveller or even Orion's Arm. Maybe somewhere in the middle.

For fantasy gaming, I have changed my default setting a bit to include ideas from a guy named Scott, who was known for his settings such as the World of Thool but has since vanished from the internet as far as I can tell. He worked for a bit on a setting he called "Mandragora: The Mandrake March". It was to be based on Andrew Lang's Color Fairy Books (The Blue Fairy Book, The Red Fairy Book, and so on), taking elements from the stories and placing them into an otherwise normal D&D-type game. I want to do that, except that I'll include one area which is based on those (removing the Arabian and Chinese ones), an area similarly based on Irish, Welsh, and Breton fairy stories plus some Arthuriana, and an area based on the Arabian Nights Entertainments (plus the other stories traditionally associated with them, such as Sindbad, 'Ala ad-Din, and 'Ali Baba, and a similar manuscript called "Tales of the Marvelous and News of the Strange"). I'll probably have a land further to the East which is based on Chinese fairy tales (and an island nation drawing on Japanese fairy stories), but that's not the default starting area so I won't bother with it until needed. Some of the setting elements that I had originally developed will remain, such as the dragon-riding peoples of the Northern dales, the bull-riding nomad barbarians, the Southern cities of the sorcerer-kings, the iron-age Aztec island kingdom across the ocean to the West, the pirate princes in a "Pirates of the Caribbean" mode, and the fantasy Egypt-like river kingdom.

I've still been working off and on toward a fantasy setting which draws inspiration from the Wild West instead of Medieval Europe. I've been playing around with ways to approach the rather subtle magic I want, and GURPS remains the best source to do those things. I have considered changing the Swords & Wizardry: White Box rules, especially the spell list, to handle the setting. It certainly helps that it is available in .rtf format to make building a rule set possible. I might put it together as a Lulu project, if I go that way. New classes (Gunslinger! Snake Oil Salesman/Mountebank! Cunning Folk! Preacher! probably more!), new spell list, and so on, all in support of the setting assumptions. The setting itself is also slow going, since I want to create certain effects but I also don't want to be too close to actual history. Plus, I'm trying to figure the best way to have a Wild West with less Eastern Cities, and still waffling on the matter of trains (trains are a major element of Western stories, but they also bring Civilization far too quickly). I also really love pirates, and the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise comes close to overlapping with the Wild West - maybe they'll be in there somewhere, like a fantastic New Orleans. I haven't come to terms with the racial politics of the time relative to the setting either, so I am not sure how I want to handle the matters of Native Americans, Africans, and Chinese laborers.

Part of the reason that I haven't completed any of these things is that I still don't have a group to play them with. I still prefer face-to-face gaming, but my attempts to reconnect with the people I gamed with when I lived in this city years ago are running into the problem that a lot of people aren't really willing to change their lives to fit the time for gaming. Oh, I'm probably overstating matters. I'm just frustrated about still not being able to get a group together after such a long, long time. It almost makes me willing to spend time learning how to use Roll20.

How are you doing?